Create the "Star Wars" Light Saber Effect

With the immense popularity of the Star Wars franchise, the light sword seems to have become the most recognizable special effect in cinema history. Immense isn't even a strong enough word - light swords have to be the most popular special effect ever created. Men, women and children ages 5 to 105 will be able to tell you what the light sword is and where it's from.

Read the full article The Sword and the Light.

Video Transcript

Hi, this is Paul Del Vecchio for Videomaker magazine, and this is what we’re gonna be creating today. So we’re gonna be creating this light saber effect here, so let’s just jump right in and get started.

So right here we have our footage, and before you go out and shoot anything, what you want to do is you want to create sort of like your light saber. Dave, our actor, he created the handle, and we just took a broomstick from Target or, you know, any one of those stores and shoved it into the handle. The handle was created out of different parts that he found at places like Home Depot and things like that.

So you can just get creative, or you can go to Toys-R-Us or any of those toy stores, and you can get a force effects light saber, which is actually better, because what a force effects light saber is is a toy light saber. It’s kind of expensive. It’s around $100.00 and $130.00 or so, but it has a blade that actually glows.

So it’s gonna help with this visual effect, because if you pass it by a wall, let’s say, the wall will have that slightly tinted glow, whatever color it is, like a blue. Let’s say it’s a blue color. You have your blue blade passing by the wall, and the wall will pick up some of that light, because that’s actually captured on set.

So that’s the good thing about a force effects light saber, but if you can’t afford that, then you could just do what we did and get a broom. It might help to get a light-colored broom so you can see it while you’re doing the visual effects.

Okay, so what you want to do first is create a new layer, a new solid, and you want to make it a pale yellow. Now, according to the good people at ILM, the light sabers actually have – they don’t have a white core. They actually have a pale yellow kind of core, so choose a color around there, pale yellow, and that looks good.

Okay, so now that we have our solid, what you want to do is lower the opacity to maybe 30 percent so you can see your layer underneath and you can see your light saber underneath. So, from here what you want to do is create an outline of your light saber, and you’re gonna have to do this frame by frame, so as it moves, you’re gonna have to move the points with it.

So let’s start off. Typically, a good way to do this is to do like a three-point section at the tip, and you want to just click and drag just a tiny bit just to round out the edges, just a little bit, though. They’re not quite round, and they’re not quite pointy.

So now that we have the three points here, you can draw a line all the way down and put three more points on this end right here. From there, just connect them. So now you have your basic outline.

So now that you have all your points, what you want to do is go into your mask properties by pressing MM on the keyboard, and you want to key frame your mask path, because what you have to do is you have to follow the position of the blade, so you’re gonna have to move your points in order to follow the position of the blade. This is the most time-consuming part of the entire process.

Another little trick here is that you can kind of hold Control while you’re – while the pencil is activated and just click and drag, and you can select points. You can kind of just hold Control again and then move all those points together. So you might want to do that on this end, too, just reposition them, and you want to do that for every frame.

So you just want to pretty much just move all these points and kind of keep it lined up with the light saber here or your broomstick. You just want to do that for the entire shot so that the mask follows the blade of the light saber.

Okay, so now that we have the roto-scoping done and we have the mask and the solid that follows the blade, and it’s in the shape of a blade – if you just scroll through the footage, you can see that here. Let’s take it to there.

All right. So, okay, now that we have that done, we’ll bring our opacity back up to 100, and now that we have our opacity back at 100, what we can do here is just kind of fix this up a little bit. I mean, that looks okay, you know, as our core, anyway. That looks fine, so what we’ll do is add two effects to our pale yellow solid.

Do Effect-Blur and Sharpen-Fast Blur, and what this will do is kind of clean up our edges a little bit and give us a little bit of a slight glow to the core. So we’ll just change this to – three I’ve noticed is a good setting for this.

So, as you see, we’ve kind of softened the edge and kind of created a little bit of a glow sort of effect with that with the fast blur, and if you want to make this a little brighter, what we can do is add another effect, Effect-Color Correction-Exposure, and we can just bring it up a little bit. You can see how that’s sort of affecting the glow, but I see .6 as sort of a good setting, just a little bit of a brightness increase, and it makes it just glow and stand out a little bit more.

All right, so now that we have the core finished, remember, this is only for the core of the light saber. There are two components. If we go back to our final product, you can see that there is a white core and a blue glow to the light saber. So what we’ve created so far is just the white core. Now we’re gonna create the glow, and this is actually an easy step, because all we have to do is actually duplicate our core layer.

So just hit Control-D on the keyboard or just go to Edit-Duplicate, and now we have two layers, and let’s do a little bit of cleaning up. So this is our footage. This right here is our core, and this is the glow layer. So now what we want to do is select our glow layer, and we want to change these settings, the fast blur and the exposure.

So, before we do that, let’s actually pick the color of our light saber. So we can just select the glow layer. Do Layer-Solid Settings, and now pick the color of our light saber. So let’s just do a green, just for fun.

All right, so there’s a little bit of a glow on the outside here, but what we want to do is just increase this glow. So pretty much all you have to do is take your fast blur and change it to 36, around that, and bring the exposure up to maybe 7.8 or so, and that’s a bit drastic right there. So now we have this like really, really thick, dense glow, and we want to – what we want to do is we want to drop the intensity of that glow down.

So choose your glow layer and just bring it down to maybe 30, your opacity down to 30. That creates a little bit better effect, because the other one is just too strong, I mean, all the way up at 100, so you can start at zero and just kind of dial it in. Like 19 is starting to look good. Thirty-five is starting to look a little strong for me, so I’m just gonna say around 25. I know I said 30 before, but, you know, 25 just seems like a good setting.

So that looks good, and now, also, if the core is too thick for you for your taste, you can kind of just click on your core layer and press MM, which brings up the mask properties, and you can select this mask expansion and just kind of shrink it down a little bit. Go into the negative numbers.

You don’t want to do it too much. Otherwise, it’s gonna do something strange like that, but if you do it just slightly, like -1, maybe, or -2, that might even be too – that’s too much, but if you want to, you know, -1 might work, or just do like -.5 might work, but I think -1 probably works the best, for my taste, anyway.

You know what? I’m thinking -.25 probably works best for me. Yeah. Yeah, that looks good. So now you have your light saber, and, as you can see, this renders really, really quick, so that’s a nice thing about it.

A few tips now that, since you have your color and your glow and everything set, we can just change the color here by going into Layer-Solid Settings, and just taking your solid and picking – you know, say you wanted a purple light saber. Click Okay. Now you’ve got a purple one, and, obviously, you would probably want to adjust the opacity, you know, just to fine-tune the color and the effect.

Another thing, too, is that if you wanted to make it not as intense, make the glow not as intense, you can kind of bring it into the lighter region here, and you’re creating sort of like this diffused kind of look. If that doesn’t work for you, you can also just bring down into the dark areas but more toward gray, and you’ll see that kind of desaturates the entire glow.

So it really depends on the look that you’re going for. Personally, I like a blue light saber or something strange like maybe an orange or red, but, yeah, like a blue light saber looks – that’s probably my favorite one. And then, you know, you can just fine-tune it by selecting your glow layer, find-tuning it by just changing the brightness of the solid or making it darker. So I’m just gonna say somewhere around there.

So if that’s not – the glow isn’t enough, you can just kind of bring the opacity up a little bit. I’m gonna say 30. That looks good. We’ll render that out, and you can see how quickly this renders, and that looks pretty good.

So, if you wanted to even go a little more crazy with this and add a real cool kind of subtle effect, what you can do is select your glow layer, and you see this opacity property here. You can kind of click or – I’m sorry – Alt-click on the stopwatch here, and make sure you’re set at the beginning right here.

So you’re at 30 percent right now, and you just want to Alt-click on the stopwatch, and then it opens up your expressions panel here. What you can do is you can type in “wiggle,” and if you’re familiar with this or you’ve seen this before, you’ve probably seen it added to footage or like a certain layer to make it bounce around. Pretty much what the wiggle operator does is – let me just write it out so I can explain this a little bit better.

Okay, so as you see right here, it says Wiggle (20,30), and what that’s gonna do is it’s gonna wiggle it 20 times per second in a range of 30. I can’t really say what the range is, depending on what you add the wiggle expression to. If you add it to footage, it’s like 30 pixels.

If you add it to your opacity, your starting point is gonna be at 30, but it’s gonna fluctuate anywhere from 30 to 60 or 30 to zero. In other words, pretty much it’s gonna change your starting value and fluctuate the value in either a positive direction or a negative direction by 30.

Okay, so now that we have that, if we just render this out again you can see the light saber kind of flickering. Now, if that’s too drastic for you, you can kind of just, again, click in here. Change it to, I don’t know, maybe like 25, and if it flickers too many times, maybe, you know, you want to go for like 15 or 10.

You’re just gonna have to experiment and see what you like. You might even want to bring the range down a little bit, so 25. Let’s say 15. Render it out, and now you can see it’s a little bit more subtle.

So it really depends on what you want your light saber to look like, so it’s all different. It’s all really up to your taste, but as long as you follow these core rules, you know, just the core idea, you can adjust it to your liking.

That’s our light saber tutorial, and thanks so much for watching. This is Paul Del Vecchio for Videomaker magazine. You can check me out at, and also you can check out the text article in an upcoming issue of Videomaker magazine.

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